Life Enfleshed: Preaching the Bible with Relevance to Women

July 1st, 2016
This article is featured in the Does Preaching Matter? (Aug/Sep/Oct 2016) issue of Circuit Rider

Scripture draws on several recurring themes to bring the story of God’s redemption to life: chaos brought into created order, promises given and fulfilled, fear transformed into trust, exile resolved by the gift of a home, and death answered by resurrection. Another recurring theme comes in the painful, persistent problem of barrenness. Women who long for a child, who wait a long time for a child to arrive, link the generations of the great family stories of Genesis. First Samuel opens with a barren woman praying while she weeps. Luke begins his Gospel with a childless couple, described as righteous, God-fearing, and getting on in years. Akin to the theme of promise and fulfillment, barren women hoping for children emerge and reemerge throughout the Bible, witnessing to how the hope for God’s redemption becomes enfleshed in the lives of women.

What does a preacher proclaim with this collection of texts? How does he navigate the precarious landscape of despair, envy, prayer, and endurance? Can she speak frankly about the intricacies of fertility or marital strain? Can he overhear with compassion Sarah’s laughter? Can she wrestle some wisdom from Rachel’s bitter wrangling with her sister Leah? Being barren seeps into questions about one’s body, one’s larger role in society, and one’s relationship with God. The wise preacher attends to each dynamic, trusting the God who chose to come as Word made flesh, who also becomes present in humanity’s embodied life.

Six women are identified as barren in scripture: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, the wife of Manoah in Judges, Hannah, and Elizabeth. Each story introduces a unique individual who addresses her situation from her history, place, and personality. Many of those components have been lost across time, just as some stories are told in greater detail. The Bible offers more insight into Hannah than Rebekah. Yet each text speaks of a woman who wants a child while contending with a body stubbornly not conceiving. Whatever her particularities, each woman longs for something that is yet to be. In the gap between what is and what is desired, she confronts the limitations of her flesh.

Bodily limitations are not confined to pregnancy. Imagine a chemo patient who can no longer ride a bike or the elder who needs a cane and hearing aids. Imagine an amputee who must adjust to life without legs or the Parkinson’s patient whose shaking hands fail to hold a hymnal. The limitations of the flesh are a bodily reality, an element of being human, and the situation from which we grasp toward meaning.

The meanings we make of our enfleshed lives are influenced by the messages we receive from the surrounding culture. Any sermon touching upon barrenness takes into account the primacy of motherhood in the biblical world. By having a child, social status was conferred upon women at a time when few other avenues existed. Children solidified her familial role, offering present and future security. Hannah pleaded for God to take away her disgrace, even as her husband professed his love. Rachel bargained for mandrakes to increase her odds of getting pregnant, hinting at her shame. A pastorally sensitive preacher recognizes that the desperate-to-conceive couple exists within a congregation, as well as individuals whose life situations teeter toward vulnerable statuses, whether driven by singleness or unemployment, deficits in education or home ownership. Further, our modern culture’s excessive emphasis on productivity—you are what you earn—reinforces a similar ethos. Being empty risks being devoid of an identity, role, or acceptable place.

Explorations of bodily and cultural situatedness are helpful when probing the multilayered meanings of barrenness. Yet the biblical women who contended with childlessness viewed their situations first and foremost as theological crises. Is God ignoring my disgrace? Have I been divinely forgotten? By understanding a child as God’s vehicle to continue God’s promise, they equated their empty wombs with God’s withholding of favor. So when they did conceive, scripture often reported “the Lord remembered her.”

I believe we come to scripture and its proclamation hoping for a sign that God remembers us. We long for lives filled with God’s presence, able to witness to God’s promise, still alive. The cycle of sacred stories about barren women teach us something about listening to our embodied lives. Not every struggle to conceive will end with a newborn. But every life is enfleshed with God’s life. The meanings we discover about how hope, despair, prayer, struggle, and promise dwell in us become the pathway toward claiming God’s remembrance of us. 

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